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Trade unions and strikes

Front side of the banner of the Witney Branch of the Workers' Union, the first trade union to set up in the town (copyright The People's History Museum, Manchester).
Front side of the banner of the Witney Branch of the Workers' Union, the first trade union to set up in the town (copyright The People's History Museum, Manchester).
Even though at times workers experienced varying degrees of low pay, long hours and poor conditions, the Witney blanket industry was not characterised by militant trade unionism, repeated strikes or frequent outbreaks of discontent. Protests and demonstrations did take place but tended to be infrequent and short lived. The Trade Union movement was also late coming to the town: although a branch of the Workers' Union was set up in the early 20th century, it was not until the 1930s that the blanket manufacturers fully accepted Union membership.

Reverse side of the Witney Workers' Union banner (copyright The People's History Museum, Manchester).
Reverse side of the Witney Workers' Union banner (copyright The People's History Museum, Manchester).
One reason for this apparent lack of militancy may have been because some of the large, family-run blanket firms were genuinely interested in the welfare of their employees and provided some benefits to them directly without Union intervention. The management style of some firms was seen by some as rather paternalistic and outdated by the 20th century, but they had good intentions and assisted many hundreds of workers without any legal obligation to do so. Various branches of the Early family's firms had a good record in being concerned with welfare issues and their attitude was clearly demonstrated in a letter to the editor of the Witney Gazette in 1913:

'As we understand that an impression was created at a meeting last Saturday that we are in favour of A Trade Union Branch being formed in Witney, we wish to state that this is not correct. In our business when any question of wages or conditions of work arises we now discuss it freely as between man and man without the intervention of a third party. We gravely fear that such intervention would imperil the open and friendly relations which exist at present on our firm.'

The reasonable working conditions, good worker-management relations and the regularity of employment in Witney also made it attractive compared to other textile producing areas. It was thought by many people to be a better proposition, in terms of the working environment and treatment of staff, than working in many of the other local factories such as carmakers and hatters, even though the wages could be comparatively low.

'Find the Profiteer', a framed cartoon from the First World War which hung for many years in one of Early's offices. Every tradesman insists that it is not he who makes the profit but the next one in the chain - which ends with the sheep!
'Find the Profiteer', a framed cartoon from the First World War which hung for many years in one of Early's offices. Every tradesman insists that it is not he who makes the profit but the next one in the chain - which ends with the sheep!
Regulation of working practices as well as standards for woollen products were laid down by the local trade guild known as the Witney Blanket Weavers' Company while it was in existence (from 1711 to the 1840s), which must have benefited some of the blanket workers in pre-industrial times.

Home workers such as spinners could face desperate hardship when they lost their livelihoods at the advent of blanket making in factories. In 1823 a group of workers in Witney formed an association or club for the protection of 'Spinners and Weavers, and... for the Protection of Property, in the Woollen Manufacture'. It had an elected committee and collected weekly subscriptions to create an unemployment and funeral fund on which members could draw. It is not known to what extent it involved itself in other areas of working life or how successful it was as no further records relating to it have been found [1].

In the past Witney was a small and basically rural community in which nearly everyone had a stake in the blanket industry in some way. Ties of blood and marriage were strong both among the company owners and amongst the workforce, people both lived and worked together in the same small area and were aware of each other's lives and concerns. The whole community held a common cause which helped to maintain good working relations.

Some industrial action did take place though, for example at Marriott's factory in May 1908 employees went on strike because of a reduction in wages: it was reported that there was some mob rioting and one girl was allegedly sacked for laughing at the boss [2]. In 1970 women workers went on strike at Smith and Philips' mill, they claimed a loss of earnings caused by using new soft yarns that broke easily on the looms, slowing down production [3].

Click on a link to find out more:
Trade unionism in the Witney blanket industry - an essay by David Buckle, former Oxford District Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

References
[1] Plummer and Early 1969: p74
[2] Honey 1998: p68
[3] Townley 2004: p101
Listen:
Download audio file
A former worker in the blanket industry from Smith and Philips' blanket company remembers an occasion when there was a strike (130Kb).

Download audio file
David Buckle, former District Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, describes the nature of his working relationship with the Witney Mills management (80Kb).